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Beyond Discovery

An exceptional teacher brings the world to exceptional kids

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Tierra Strickland's 10-year-old face lights up. Her head tilts as far back as it can go, and her mouth is agape as she stares up at a ten-foot-plus grizzly bear frozen forever in attack mode. In her wheelchair, Tierra barely reaches the beast's knees. At the moment she's too awed to crack a joke, but normally the class comedienne has one ready. In school she is quick to roll her eyes and say something like, "Oh my God, Mrs. G., you're crazy," if her energetic teacher does something quirky. Socially, Tierra is more advanced than her mental equivalence, which is that of a 4-year-old.

On a typical day, hundreds of Charlotte schoolchildren tear through Discovery Place. Overmatched chaperones struggle to control armies of prattling sugar fiends so they might calm down long enough to actually learn something. Amid the jumping masses, dressed in all pink, Tierra leans to the right in her wheelchair. Born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, she cannot use the left side of her body. Immediately after her birth, Tierra was rushed into surgery. A cranial tube was inserted to drain excess fluid into her abdomen, and her face was pulled over a partially exposed brain. As a result, a scar is on her forehead just above her nearly permanent smile.

When teacher Leah Germelman found out her school would be taking a field trip to Discovery Place, she was excited. Her kids might even benefit more than other students, who often treat the excursion as a glorified recess. Leah teaches a class of five children who have been labeled "trainable mentally disabled" (TMD), which is on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum of students with cognitive disorders. Being labeled TMD means the North Carolina Standard Course of Study curriculum is modified to supplement functional life skills with academic work.

In Mecklenburg County, 11 percent of students qualify under the all-encompassing, politically correct classification "exceptional children," or EC, which ranges from students fully included in mainstream classes to students who are restricted to their homes or hospitals. Students who have been labeled TMD have IQs of between 25 and 60. They often have physical disabilities that make self-help tasks like feeding and toileting difficult.

Maybe that's why Leah wasn't asked if her class wanted to come along for the field trip. Not that her students would embarrass the school, but special kids need special attention. Ordering the costly handicapped-accessible bus would come out of the school's tight budget, she was told, and each of the kids would need a personal chaperone. Leah has only one assistant. Finding three more chaperones would be difficult.

Most teachers would have given up right there, but Leah knew the trip would mean the world to her kids -- none of whom had been to Discovery Place before. Leah didn't even give up after the rest of the school went on the trip in October. She made some calls and got her mentor, Sarah Caputo, an EC teacher at East Meck, to assure the administration that the money for the bus would come out of the city's EC fund. Caputo agreed to take her class along for support. Two months later, Leah's kids finally got their field trip.

The trip went better than expected. Just as Leah anticipated, the kids were ecstatic; they also behaved the whole time. And, to her surprise, they talked about the trip the next day ­-- an advanced cognitive skill demonstrating retention that is usually challenging for her students.

This is the inaugural year for both Leah as a teacher and her school's self-contained EC program, and both are learning along the way. At the beginning of the year, regular-education students would stare or laugh at the kids. One of Leah's partially paralyzed kids struggles with eating because of her condition. After a few days of noticing the other kids pointing and laughing at her, the girl asked Leah what she was doing wrong. Leah was mortified. At the next staff meeting, she told the other teachers that her students weren't oblivious to mockery, and she requested that the teachers speak to their students about disrespectful behavior. Since then, attitudes toward the kids have gotten better.

Leah didn't want her kids to be embarrassed about their differences, but babying them was not the way to go either. She drew up a lesson plan in which each of the kids had to come up with something they liked about themselves. She also had them look into mirrors and say, "Hello, Good-looking."

It didn't take long for Leah to realize that regular teaching wasn't going to cut it. She found her kids listened more when she sang instructions to them. She also noticed they responded more to visual and kinesthetic learning, so she taught them some sign language.

Tierra has made significant progress in Leah's class. Last year, when Tierra was living in Pembroke, her parents said the school there was more like day care. They didn't know how fast their daughter was capable of learning until they saw the progress Leah has made with her in only three and a half months. Now Tierra is able to do more things on her own like eating off a tray in the cafeteria, and she's made strides in the bathroom. She has also retained academic knowledge, having begun to learn the alphabet.

Finding the time to actually teach can be a challenge when the bulk of a teacher's day is spent with toileting and behavioral issues. Staying on task for five minutes at a time is the goal Leah sets for her students. She gets to school an hour early, at 6am, to set up stations for the day's activities so the transitions into the next activity will run smoothly. Throughout the day, she is constantly on the floor with her kids -- rolling around, barking, singing, doing whatever she thinks will keep them interested. Many days she doesn't have time to eat lunch. On weekends she plans the theme for the next week.

"I don't know how she does it," said Caputo, who teaches higher functioning educationally mentally disabled (EMD) high-school students. "I couldn't do it."

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